We just got back from our trip to St. Petersburg, Florida for the first round of the INDY NXT by Firestone series. It was my first race in the series and in the INDY NXT car, but at a track I’m quite familiar with.
One year ago I found myself on the pole, and later the top step on the Streets of St. Petersburg. Because of this, I had the belief in myself that despite the lack of testing in the off-season, we would be able to get our year off to a strong start.
We rolled off the truck solidly. A P6 in practice one was a good start, especially after leading the majority of the session. I felt strong, and our car was in a really good window. Cyril (my engineer) and I sat down and rehearsed our session in our debrief, continuing to build that integral driver-engineer communication.
We progressed into free practice two well, running in the top 5 for the first half of the session, and as we put our final set of tires on I lightly tapped the inside wall at turn 9, just forcing the outside wheel into the wall and ending our session.
Now a side note, the number one thing I learned from this weekend is that every session is fragile. Because we have so little track time, and the cars are so quick (which means you need a strong level of confidence to get lap time) any off-track or damage quickly forces your weekend awry.
Qualifying was up a few hours later, and after a mega job by the whole team (special thanks to Kevin (crew chief) and Keegan (front end)) we were back up and running again. An 8-minute qualifying session meant track position was king to produce a good enough lap time. Due to the nature of the track, all of our last laps would be the fastest of the session. We had a misunderstanding in the pitlane, meaning I launched out of the box and then stopped. We eventually raced out of the pits in the middle of the line, losing out to two laps of precious tire warmup which seriously hurt our eventual position, P10.
One sleep went by and we arrived at a quiet and calm HMD trailer, ready to get fighting. I absolutely love racing, and despite us not getting the position we wanted in qualifying, we knew the pace was absolutely there and that we would be able to move forward. One big difference between IndyPro200 (last years series) and INDY NXT is that here we walk to the pitlane. As we arrive, we walk between the stands and you feel thousands of people chanting and cheering us on as we walk out to our cars. Such an indescribable feeling, nothing if not motivating. I hopped in the car, gave a fist bump to Kevin, and rolled away to start my INDY NXT debut.
We immediately got after it. After a crash 2 corners into the race, we had our first restart. A huge divebomb into turn one gave us a position, another on the power on exit, and one more down into turn 4; up to P8. Another crash and another restart, defending this time into turn one, no loss or gain. Everyone made it through clean, and we began to settle into the rhythm. Cyril was in my ear throughout the race, keeping me updated on gaps to other cars and the pace needed. We hunted down P7 and stole that position, then the aerowash really came into effect. Five cars all in a row, not able to close the gap to the car ahead, classic formula car racing.
Push to pass is a valuable asset in these INDY NXT cars, with 150 seconds available of 50+ extra horsepower, it can have a strong effect on the pace. Cyril and I had planned before the race that a 3-second burn per lap (45-lap race) would be the best course of action to keep the pace up. Quickly though, I realized that stuck in this train I didn’t need p2p to keep up, so I stayed off the button. Cyril continued in my ear lap to lap, reminding me how much I could use per lap as the laps counted down, “4 seconds per lap… 5 seconds… 6 seconds…”.
With 15 to go, we had another safety car period, and I fought to move forward. A late dive to the inside for P5 into turn 4 was a solid attempt, but the driver ahead moved across in the braking zone, hitting my side pod and spinning me on the entry. Somehow with a stroke of serious luck, the car came out unscathed, and we started our final restart with a single lap to go in P12.
To say I was angry is an understatement, after all the hard work we had fought our way nearly to a podium, and it got ripped away from us; but the work wasn’t done yet. In a stormer of a final lap, I managed to find my way past 5 cars, seating us a solid 7th place as our final result.
Though it was frustrating, I learned so much from my first weekend in INDY NXT. Despite the results not being particularly what we had hoped, we did an amazing job recovering from adversity and made the very best of every situation handed to us.
I have to say a huge thank you to our partners Zimperium and Lionfish as well as Coach Mark Green and my whole crew at HMD Motorsports (Cyril, Kevin, and Keegan) for the support and hard work this weekend.
We’ll show them what’s up at Barber.